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November 8, 2004

Napalm Survivor Tells of Healing After Vietnam War

A nine-year-old girl runs naked from the conflagration that was her village, her body badly burned, crying out in pain.

A photographer’s image has frozen that moment in time. But life didn’t stand still for the little girl in the picture, and now Kim Phuc tells her story around the world to benefit other child victims of war.

Phuc spoke at UConn on Nov. 1 to launch this year’s Month of Kindness, established by the University’s Hillel to unite the campus under the theme of kindness.

Phuc said her experience of war, captured in Nick Ut’s 1972 photo, changed her life. “I owe my values and who I am today to that experience,” she said. “Sometimes a terrible thing can happen, but if we are very lucky, we can learn from our experience, and it can even make us stronger.”

Phuc said she grew up in a tiny village in South Vietnam, in a nice house with a big yard, playing with friends and riding her bicycle. “I felt safe, and loved,” she said. “Before the war, I was never afraid.”

When a plane dropped four napalm bombs on the village, Phuc was badly burned. As she and her relatives fled, a group of journalists on the road outside the village captured the horror on film. They also tried to help: Ut himself drove Phuc to the nearest hospital.

Phuc recounted her life as a series of lessons learned.

The first lesson, she said, is to be strong in the face of pain.

“Napalm is the most terrible pain you can imagine,” she said. “Water boils at 100 degrees Celsius. Napalm generates temperatures of 800 to 1,200 degrees Celsius.”

Phuc had third-degree burns to half her body and was not expected to live. But she survived, enduring a 14-month hospital stay and 17 operations.

“I almost died many times,” she said. “Today I still have pain, but I have learned to deal with it.”

The second lesson, she said, is the importance of love. The compassion of doctors and nurses and the love of her family helped her recover, she said.

She also discovered that love can be tough. She was reluctant to do the daily exercises she needed to do because they were so painful, but her mother insisted. “I got better later on,” she said. “I’m so grateful to my mother.”

Phuc said that after the war, her family’s life was “very different and very difficult.

“Our house was destroyed completely,” she said. “You have everything one day and suddenly you have nothing. I learned that you can lose everything, but if you have family love and God’s love, you have everything.”

She said education has always been important to her. As a small child, she loved going to school. When she returned home after treatment, the first thing she wanted to do was go back to school. “To me it meant a normal life, being a kid again,” she said.

She dreamed of becoming a doctor, and studied hard despite the obstacles. But first because of the Vietnam War, and later because of the war with neighboring Cambodia, life was dangerous and it was often difficult to attend school.

When she was 19 years old, the Vietnamese government chose Phuc as their poster child, and would pick her up after school to give interviews to foreign journalists.

She begged to be allowed to go somewhere quiet for study, and was sent to Cuba, where she spent the next six years, although she eventually had to leave medical school because of her health.

Another lesson Phuc learned, she said, was the importance of freedom. “I always had minders – people from the government whose job was to watch me every moment.”

She began to dream of escaping. In 1992, Phuc married a North Vietnamese student at the University of Havana. The couple went to Moscow for their honeymoon, and on their return journey, when the plane stopped to refuel in Canada, they had just one hour to make their escape. The only belongings she had with her were a camera and a purse.

“Sometimes in our lives we need to take a risk,” she said.

The most difficult lesson of all, Phuc said, was how to forgive – a lesson she learned from the Bible. “It wasn’t easy. I didn’t just say one day ‘I forgive’. It took many doctors and operations to repair my body, but … it took the power of God’s love to heal my heart.”

In 1996, during a Veterans Day ceremony in Washington, D.C., Phuc met a former pilot who helped coordinate the airstrike on her village.

The two embraced and she told him she forgave him. They have stayed in touch.

Phuc said she is grateful to have learned so many lessons.

“Having known war, I know the value of peace,” she said. “Having lived under government control, I know the value of freedom. Having lived with pain, I know the healing power of love. Having lived with poverty, losing everything and having nothing, I know how to value what I have. And the most important thing of all, having lived in hatred, terror, and corruption, I know the power of faith and forgiveness.”

In 1997, Phuc established the Kim Foundation, a charitable organization to help child victims of war.

“A photographer happened to be on that road that day,” she said, “but I can never forget the thousands of innocent children who didn’t have their picture taken and didn’t get help. These are the children I want to help.”

The last lesson had to do with the famous picture. “For many years,” Phuc said, “the picture controlled me. Then I realized that, if I could not escape the picture, I could work with it for peace. Now I travel, following my picture around the world as a Goodwill Ambassador for UNESCO. My picture is a symbol of war, but my life is a symbol of love, hope, and forgiveness.”